NSA Whistle-Blower Says Eavesdropping Broke Law

Pentagon inspector general has opened investigation into NSA's methods — although some question the legitimacy of NSA investigating itself.

A former employee of the National Security Agency has admitted to being a source for The New York Times' recent stories on the government's secret domestic spying program and he told ABC News on Tuesday that some of the eavesdropping undertaken by the organization may have been illegal.

The news broke on the same day that the NSA's inspector general announced that he is opening an investigation into the organization's actions, which were repeatedly authorized by President Bush (see "Bush Gave U.S. Agency Authorization To Spy On Americans").

Twenty-year NSA veteran Russell Tice told ABC News that the secret spying operations by the organization were carried out in a manner he believes is illegal, and that he's willing to tell Congress everything he knows. Tice, who said he worked in the Special Access — or "black world" — Programs and Operations unit, explained that following the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, the Defense Department and NSA dramatically ramped up efforts to thwart terrorism.

"The mentality was, 'We need to get these guys, and we're going to do whatever it takes to get them,' " Tice told ABC. Though President Bush has defended his orders allowing the NSA to eavesdrop on the e-mails and phone conversations from what he described as a small number of Americans with known ties to al Qaeda without obtaining proper warrants, Tice said the number of Americans who might have been subject to eavesdropping by the NSA could be in the millions if analysts used the full range of the secret program. "That would mean for most Americans that if they conducted or placed an overseas communication, more than likely they were sucked into that vacuum," Tice said.

The former NSA staffer said the technology exists to track and sort through every domestic and international phone call as they are switched through centers, and to search for key words or phrases that a terrorist might use. "If you picked the word 'jihad' out of a conversation," Tice said, "the technology exists that [allows a listener to] focus in on that conversation and pull it out of the system for processing." Once that information is pulled, Tice said intelligence analysts then put it on a graph that resembles a spider web that links the suspect's phone number to hundreds, perhaps thousands more.

In May of 2005, the Cox News Service reported that Tice, then a high-level intelligence official, was fired just days after he publicly urged Congress to pass stronger protections for whistle-blowers facing retaliation. Tice, who had won awards at the agency for intelligence work on Iraq, had his security clearance permanently revoked after reporting suspicions that a female co-worker at the Defense Intelligence Agency was a spy for China. He was ordered by the NSA to undergo a psychological evaluation after the report and a Defense Department psychologist concluded that he suffered from psychotic paranoia. Tice claimed he showed no signs of the disease.

In June 2003, according to Cox, the agency suspended Tice's security clearance and ordered him to maintain and clean the agency's vehicles, around the time that he told the NSA he was considering talking to his congressional representatives about waste and abuse at the agency. Tice was reportedly told he would face retaliation if he did so.

The Pentagon inspector general has opened an investigation into the organization's warrant-less eavesdropping, according to The Washington Post. Acting Inspector General Thomas F. Gimble wrote in a letter released Tuesday that his counterpart at the NSA "is already actively reviewing aspects of that program" and has "considerable expertise in the oversight of electronic surveillance," according to the letter, which was sent to House Democrats who have requested official investigations of the NSA program.

The letter seems to confirm that an internal investigation into the domestic-spying program has been launched in tandem with a Justice Department criminal investigation into the leak of the highly classified program's existence to The New York Times. President Bush has said that the NSA activities were thoroughly reviewed by the Justice Department and NSA's top legal officials, including its inspector general, prompting Democratic representative Zoe Lofgren of California to question whether the inspector general should investigate a program it had a role in approving.

"The inspector general for NSA has repeatedly reviewed this and OK'd it ... so I don't know how his investigation is going to get a new set of eyes on this," Lofgren said, according to the Post. "How are they going to be able to investigate themselves?"

Even Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito was drawn into the controversy on Tuesday during his Senate confirmation hearings. After earlier ducking the question, when asked by Senator Patrick Leahy about the president's powers to "override the laws and immunize illegal conduct," Alito said that "no person in this country is above the law. And that includes the president and it includes the Supreme Court."